Thursday, April 19, 2018

Community Attachment: What I Learned at Free Movie Night

By Matt Tarleton, Executive Vice President

"Feed me. Feeeeeed me! FEED ME, SEYMOUR!”

That was all I could think this past Friday night as I sat in the parking lot of Aurora Coffee in Little Five Points, Atlanta watching Little Shop of Horrors for the first time in my life. I was surrounded by about 150 of my neighbors – some I recognized or knew, many I did not – all there to support a neighborhood beautification initiative (Little Five Alive) but primarily to watch this 1986 musical about a carnivorous plant and its pursuit of world domination.

On our walk home, my thoughts started to shift from this cinematic masterpiece to what I had just experienced. That single event – a musical projected on an inflatable screen in a parking lot – so perfectly encapsulated an important lesson related to community attachment.

Earlier this decade, the Knight Foundation and Gallup conducted a survey of more than 14,000 Americans across 26 cities to determine what influences community attachment; what makes a place “sticky.” We cite this piece of research, the Soul of the Community report, quite often at Market Street because it has such important implications for talent retention today. Communities that are characterized by high rates of resident attachment are inherently more successful at talent retention; those residents that fall in love with their community and grow attached to it are more likely to stay, and more likely to become evangelists of and for the community.

Through their extensive surveying, the Knight Foundation and Gallup found that three factors principally influence community attachment: social offerings, aesthetics, and openness. They found that these three factors are more important to community attachment than many other attributes that we often consider to be highly influential of residential location decisions. Simply put, people are highly attached to places that are fun (provide ample social offerings), that are beautiful and attractive (invest in aesthetics), and that are inviting and welcoming to all (openness to people from diverse backgrounds).

These attributes, and the attachment that they beget, are often best exemplified at a hyperlocal level. Think about your community and the places in which you have pride. Resident attachment and pride in place often increases as geography becomes more narrowly defined. One may be prideful in their home state, but even more prideful in their home town. Within their home town, many are particularly attached to or prideful in their neighborhood, and at even more granular level. We often identify with neighborhoods, and even streets. Very simply, we are more heavily attached to the environment that immediately surrounds us – our neighborhood – and inherently less attached to those parts of a community or region in which we do not reside or which we visit infrequently. We naturally care more that our street is clean and beautiful than if a street on the other side of town is clean and beautiful.

It’s easy to forget this when developing strategies that seek to enhance community attachment in support of talent attraction and retention. The three factors mentioned above – social offerings, aesthetics, and openness – are often most heavily experienced and influenced at the hyperlocal level. A free screening of Little Shop of Horrors that was open to all and hosted by a neighborhood organization focused on beautification perfectly captured this. And in that moment as I was walking home from the movie, I started to think of all the other examples of how my attachment to this city has been heavily influenced by what transpires in my neighborhood, at this hyperlocal level.

The regular plantings organized by Trees Atlanta’s Neighborwoods program, the seedling exchange run by the League of Urban Gardeners, the park clean-ups and landscaping days hosted by the Candler Park Neighborhood Organization, and the individual investment made by individual homeowners in beautifying our neighborhood all contribute to the aesthetic that I consume and enjoy on a daily basis.

The free movie nights, the Halloween Block Party on Page Avenue, the porchfests, the Fall Fest, and various other informal and formal social offerings throughout the year in the neighborhood all contribute to, and increasingly define, my social life as a 35 year old in Atlanta. These events also bring our neighborhood and community together. They illustrate the diversity of our community; diversity and openness that I am proud of, exemplified by the many yard signs reading “Refugees Welcome” and “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” in multiple languages.

So it’s no surprise that when I talk to my friends and family about Atlanta and what I love, so much of what I talk about is at the neighborhood-level. And by and large, the many initiatives and offerings that I referenced above in my neighborhood are led entirely by volunteers and residents. When we talk about quality of life and quality of place in the communities that we assist, so often the conversation gravitates towards the next big project or amenity. These projects and investments are necessary, but they aren’t the be-all, end-all of placemaking and resident attachment. Too often we forget that many of our most impactful initiatives with respect to resident attachment are low-cost, volunteer-led, and hyper-local. And too often we belittle or trivialize factors like social offerings and aesthetics in our conversations about community competitiveness; it is easy to do so when faced with challenges like child poverty, dropouts, and job losses. But in a world where conversations about community competitiveness increasingly center upon a community’s ability to cultivate attachment and retain its resident workforce, we can’t ignore these factors and their undeniable influence.